Sacrificing Family: Does Jesus’ Teaching on Discipleship Invalidate the Modern Emphasis on Family before Ministry?


The now popular idea that one should not neglect family for the sake of ministry is an American cultural value, not a biblical value. A survey of the modern evangelical view of family and ministry reveals its emphasis on not allowing ministry to cause one to fail to meet his or her family’s needs. The problems that result from a husband and father’s neglect of his wife and children has motivated this emphasis and influenced the interpretation and application of certain biblical passages related to the family. The result has been a hierarchy of commitment: first God, then family, and then church (ministry), even for pastors. However, Jesus’ teachings on discipleship conflict with our modern emphasis. Those worthy of Him sacrifice all for Him, including family. Jesus was not speaking hyperbolically in these instances. The conversations that follow indicate otherwise. Jesus was very serious about the level of commitment He demands of us. The challenge this creates for the modern church involves such things as pastors, elders, and deacons failing to meet clear biblical standards because their children rebel in response to neglect, or their testimony to the lost world around them is harmed by the impact of neglect on their families. However, the impact of our modern approach has harmed the church more than helped it. It has led to a weakened view of commitment to Christ that has expressed itself in a reduced commitment to the life of the church. The weakened church has subsequently lost its willingness to do those things necessary to reach the lost world around it with the gospel. Can we follow Christ the way He wants us to and still preserve our families? Maybe not. However, there are principles and practices taught by Jesus and the authors of the New Testament that makes it possible, though not a guarantee. Even so, the risk of suffering should never deter one from serving Jesus, even when it includes those we love.


How important is the family when its “needs” conflict with ministry? Is serving Jesus a legitimate excuse for neglecting family? The answer to these questions has changed over time and needs to be addressed once again. Failed marriages and rebellious children have driven the American church to reevaluate its expectations of a pastor as well as its members. Positively, there is the desire to protect the family. However, negatively, our churches may be encouraging the very opposite of Jesus’ expectation for those who would follow and serve Him.

In this paper, first, the issue will be examined and the church’s response discussed. Next, Jesus’ teachings that directly impact this issue will be examined. This will be followed with a discussion of whether there is a legitimate way to balance Jesus’ demands with the husband and father’s responsibility to his wife and children that is also clearly taught in Scripture. Finally, the biblical mandate and how to live it out in a way that is obedient to Christ will be addressed.

The Evangelical Quandary

No one doubts that men and women have neglected their families to “serve” Jesus. This is not just true of pastors, but of lay people as well.[1] The failure is depicted often in the behavior of “preachers’ kids” who rebel in order to gain the attention of their father. His absence from the home to attend meetings and visit members, or potential members, is blamed for the problem. When pastors lose their children, they subsequently become disqualified to continue serving because they cease to meet the qualifications of an elder (1 Tim 3:4-5). Further, the testimony of the church is hurt in the community and the gospel is maligned.

The response of the church to this problem has been to encourage their ministers to focus more on their families, even to the neglect of ministry at times. [2] This can be seen in the writing of such people as James Dobson who began placing the family before ministry.[3] He describes the problem, using himself as the model of the problem of over-commitment, and then anecdotally shows how his putting his family first proved more beneficial to his ministry.[4] Barnabas Piper describes the evangelical perspective well. “What happens when the calling of pastor is elevated beyond where it ought to be is that he gains both the freedom and the expectation to be and do things others ought not. Since the pastor is seen as doing ‘God’s work’ in some unique way, it becomes okay for him to work seventy- and eighty-hour weeks, even though such excess would be frowned upon and maybe even rebuked if the bond salesman did it. … Pastors are expected to be available to their congregation at any time of day or night—dinnertime, their daughter’s soccer game, school open house, moving their son to college. Missing a day of work, which might mean not preaching on a Sunday, is seen as dereliction of duty rather than simply what it is: family time or vacation.” Piper blames the mindset in part on the church as well as the pastor.[5] He then gives his solution. “What pastors need to realize is that their first calling is to their families, not the church. Yes, the church is a calling too, and balancing the two is enormously difficult. As in many other industries, the job does sometimes demand attention in a way that cannot be ignored. But when someone marries and becomes a parent, those people—the family—must come first. It is wrong, sinful, to put us on the sidelines and treat pastoral ministry as if it is the ‘primary’ or ‘real’ calling. Pastors must keep the dual calls in proper relation to one another, as difficult as that may be.” Finally Piper concludes: “The pastor’s family needs the best of his time and energy.”[6]

Frances and Lisa Chan reject this mindset. “We all have callings from God, and those callings are bigger than our marriages. Seeking His kingdom must be our first priority, and if we’re not careful, marriage can get in the way. … Can you really call your marriage ‘good’ if your focus on your family keeps you from making disciples, caring for the poor, reaching out to the lost, and using your talents and resources for others?”[7]

It is clear that lines have been drawn, at least by some. But how does one answer the question of commitment and family? Begin by looking at what Jesus says.

Jesus’ Teaching

Though the Gospels contain Jesus’ instructions on divorce and children, they say little else about family and family relationships.[8] On the other hand, when the question of family obligations arises, Jesus’ response is instructive. What can be learned about family obligations comes from Jesus’ response to men who wished to be His disciples. His basic response to every request is that following Him must be the first priority, the only option, for anyone who wishes to be His disciple. This can be seen in His response to four requests.

Matt 10:34-39

In Matthew 10:34-39, the context is conflict within the family resulting from following Christ.[9] After identifying the various relationships that could be damaged by such a decision, Jesus calls for commitment with the warning that those who do not give Him absolute loyalty are “not worthy” (οὐκ ἄξιος) of Him. [10] This is said in the context of a culture that placed family loyalty above all else.[11] However, Jesus clearly demands to be first and warns that anything less will cost His follower everything he or she seeks to find in Christ.[12] John Nolland addresses the problem of modern interpretations well.  “The discomfort of these challenging words is often softened by placing an emphasis on readiness to put God ahead of family, and then establishing a context of expectations in which God is seen as so pro-family that such a possibility remains only hypothetical.”[13] However, Jesus’ words are not hypothetical. It is not a question of readiness, or of “balance.” His demand for loyalty is absolute.[14] Craig Blomberg understands Jesus’ point well. “Devotion to family is a cardinal Christian duty but must never become absolute to the extent that devotion to God is compromised.”[15]

Luke 14:26-33

Luke 14:26-33 places the words of Jesus following an incident in which He was invited into a Pharisee’s home for dinner on the Sabbath and healed a man with dropsy after being asked if it was lawful to do so. After a few more questions and answers, Jesus departs and is followed by multitudes. It is to these followers that Jesus turns and challenges them to count the cost of following Him. Jesus speaks to them in terms of willingness to die for Him. Anyone unwilling could not be His disciple (οὐ δύναται εἶναί μου μαθητής). However, what He says about family is not a question of willingness, but an expectation. Jesus uses the verb for “hate” (μισέω) to contrast their loyalty for Him with their love for family members, and even for their own lives. For Jesus it is not a question of degrees, but of opposites. One may argue that Jesus is speaking in absolutes that He knows are impossible, using hyperbole, and so not to be understood or applied literally. However, the point He makes has to do with levels of commitment. Μισέω (hate) is used to communicate the idea that they are to “esteem” their family members less than they esteem Jesus.[16]  Additionally, His subsequent charge to “count the cost” (vv. 28-32) before committing to follow Him clarifies that His use of hyperbole does not change the fact that Jesus is demanding a permanent mindset that chooses Him over family and life. In fact, Jesus demands one “forsake all his possessions” (ἀποτάσσεται πᾶσιν τοῖς ἑαυτοῦ ὑπάρχουσιν) to follow Him, and so moves the discussion beyond family.

Matt 19:27-29; Luke 18:28-30

In Matthew 19:27-29 Jesus promises to reward those who sacrifice their families in order to follow Him. For the apostles, it means reigning over Israel when Jesus returns as its King. For others, it is a hundredfold reward in this life and a full future life. The significance of these statements is that Peter had willfully chosen to leave his family behind to accompany Jesus. Jesus does not chide him for it, but promises to reward Peter instead. The promise to repay a hundred times over indicates further that God knows what it costs us, and our families, to follow Jesus. Otherwise He could not reward us accordingly.

Matt 16:24-27; Mark 8:34-38; Luke 9:23-27

In Matthew 16:24-27 Jesus demands that His followers “deny” themselves and “daily” take up their cross while following Him. “Daily” (καθʼ ἡμέραν, Luke 9:23) indicates a consistent pattern of behavior, not occasional or when it does not conflict with family plans. This command of Jesus was so important that it was included by all three synoptic authors. They quote Jesus almost word-for-word, with just a few additions. Luke’s account seems the most basic. Matthew adds, “He will reward according to his works” with respect to the one who denies himself and “comes after” Jesus. This “coming after” (ἀκολουθείτω μοι) is a present active imperative and indicates that following Jesus involves a lifestyle choice rather than a single incident. These works involve personal sacrifice and so necessarily include family. Mark adds “ashamed of Me and My words” and warns that the Son of Man will be ashamed of him. Jesus equates an unwillingness to sacrifice one’s desires, the sense of desiring to “save” one’s life, will in actuality be an act of dissociating oneself from Jesus. In this sense he or she will be “ashamed” of Jesus. The result is a similar rejection by Jesus for the one unwilling to follow Him absolutely. Jesus makes clear that there is no room for partial followership. Additionally, Jesus defines this partial followership as allowing anything or anyone to get in the way of following Him. But can there be exceptions? Jesus’ answers to requests for exceptions to His demand should guide one’s understanding of the priority He gives service to Him over family obligations. This can be seen in His interaction with one potential disciple and a second person identified as a disciple.

Matthew 8:19-22

In Matthew 8:19-22, after telling a scribe who wishes to be Jesus’ disciple that he must count the cost, Jesus rejects the request of another who wishes to put family obligations first. This passage recounts Jesus’ interaction with two potential disciples, both saying they are willing to follow Him. His answers to each are quite instructive. The first, who states his desire in absolute terms is called upon by Jesus to consider the cost. The implication is that the man has not thought through the significance of his decision. Jesus does not apologize for the difficulties he will face. He just makes sure the scribe understands at least one of the hardships his commitment will entail. Matthew includes this as a reminder to count the cost of following Jesus.

The second potential disciple appears to have been asked by Jesus to follow Him. This can be seen in the way the disciple expresses his request and the way Jesus answers him.[17] Again, Jesus does not compromise or apologize, but rather dismisses his request, a request that would not be considered unreasonable in Jewish society in the first century. In fact, it would be considered a righteous request. It was a son’s moral obligation to both his father and his family.[18] Generally it is suggested that his father had not died yet. And, Matthew does not indicate whether he was close to death or just aged. More recently, it has been proposed that the disciple was referring to what is considered a second burial that occurred a year after the initial burial. In this burial the father’s bones would be gathered into an ossuary and placed in a slot in the tomb.[19] However, whether his request is seen in the context of his father’s imminent death or the approaching second burial, what is certain is that his request would be considered reasonable with either option. The importance of this filial duty can be seen in the Mosaic Law’s provision for priests to bury their parents (Lev 21:1-2) and its mention in Jewish literature as well (Tobit 4:3; 6:14).[20] He is being a good, father-honoring son.[21]

Jesus’ response is the exact opposite of what would be expected within the first century world, whether within Jewish or Gentile society.[22] Jesus’ demand is completely counter-cultural and would be viewed as shocking as well as offensive by His listeners. [23] Jesus is demanding that he dishonor his father by neglecting his filial duties toward him to remain in the company of Jesus as His follower.[24]

Luke (Luke 9:60-61) adds another disciple’s request that was just as “reasonable” on one hand, but less demanded by custom. He simply wants to say goodbye to his family, something that probably would only require a short pause in following Jesus. Nonetheless, Jesus rejects him for making such a request. This would be the sense of His response that going home to say goodbye made the disciple “unfit” for the kingdom of God. Elisha made the same request of Elijah and was granted permission by him (1 Kings 19:19-21).

What can be seen in all of these incidents is Jesus’ rejection of what is considered, rightly, requests to meet family obligations. None of these men are rejecting Jesus. They all clearly desire to follow Him. They are not trying to come up with excuses to justify not following Him. They each just feel that they have one more obligation to meet before they can follow in good conscience. They each feel that their requests are reasonable. Jesus says otherwise.

The Example of the Disciples

What can be known about those who left their families behind to follow Jesus?[25] It cost them and their families. And, nothing in Scripture indicates that their families especially appreciated it. How they likely felt may be seen in the interactions between Jesus and His family members. In Matthew 12:46-50 Jesus dismisses His family when His mother and brothers seek to speak with Him while He is teaching.[26] In John 7:1-9 His brothers tell Jesus to go to Jerusalem and do miracles there. John tells us that their comments came from unbelief, and were not words of encouragement for their eldest brother. The sarcasm of their statement cannot be missed. Through this, we get a glimpse at their resentment. Why would they be resentful? It would have been Jesus’ duty, as the eldest son of Joseph, to lead the family, including finding work for them and caring for their mother. Instead, Jesus had left her in their care, left the family business, and wandered around the country living off of people’s generosity and pretending to be an itinerant Rabbi.[27]

Scripture says very little about the families of the disciples. For most of them, nothing is said about their families. A little can be known about Peter. He was married, owned a home (Mark 1:29-31) and at least one, but maybe a couple of fishing boats (Luke 5:7).[28] This would indicate that he was somewhat wealthy when compared to the average Jew.[29] Peter would be what we would consider a part of the Jewish middle class. He would, to some extent, have the financial means to follow Jesus and still provide for his family. John 21 indicates that he did not sell his business to follow Jesus since the disciples went fishing in his boat. Peter likely already has employees working for him when Jesus calls him, and they continue to operate his business for him and provide him a steady income. Very likely, when Jesus is ministering in and around Capernaum, and staying in Peter’s home, Peter would be interacting with his employees and managing the family business. Thus one might dispute Peter’s understanding of the extent of his personal sacrifice in following Jesus. Jesus recognizes and acknowledges the sacrifice made by Peter and the other apostles.

In Matthew 19 Jesus is approached by a “rich young ruler” who chooses to keep his wealth rather than follow Jesus. After Jesus speaks about the difficulty that the wealthy have in entering the kingdom of heaven, the disciples ask who can be saved, if the “blessed” wealthy Jew is excluded. Following Jesus’ response that it is only possible with God, Peter asks the question that was likely on every disciple’s mind. He says “we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?” (Matt 19:27). Jesus responds with a promise of rewards. He follows this with the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16), by which He reminds Peter and the apostles that it is He who will determine rewards and not them or their view of fairness. However, it should be noted that Jesus acknowledges their sacrifice and promises to reward them for it. Further, Peter’s statement is correct. Peter has not given up all, just left it behind (ἀφήκαμεν).[30]

So, what price does the families of the apostles pay while they “leave all” to follow Jesus? For the unmarried apostles, their father’s household lost a source of income. In the case of James and John, their father would have had to hire men to replace them. For those who are married, their wives are left on their own to manage the household and raise the children. They also face the economic hardship that results from their husbands wandering across the countryside and not working. Children have an absent father. Granted, Jesus spends much of His time ministering in Galilee. Very likely they would have seen their spouses and children on a regular basis. However, they would still be accompanying Jesus, not going home each evening and rejoining Jesus each morning.

Following Jesus clearly supersedes familial obligations along with every other commitment one might have in life.[31] All of Jesus’ disciples had to “neglect” their families to follow Jesus.[32] Ultimately we should too, at least at times, if that is what it takes to fulfill a responsibility He has given us.

But, one may ask, are there extenuating circumstances? Are there ways to balance the priorities? For example, Marshall Shelley argues for a freedom to adjust priorities. “Perhaps the greatest problem with the ‘God first, family second, career third’ perspective is that real-life situations can’t be quite so neatly arranged. Responsibilities simply don’t line up first-second-third. At different times, God, family, and career must each be given our full attention. The issue becomes: When does God deserve my full attention? When does my family deserve my full attention? When does the church deserve my full attention? In practice, priorities can’t be stacked like blocks.”[33] This sounds good in theory. But is that the biblical perspective? Are there other New Testament passages that might indicate that Jesus’ words should not be understood absolutely, but only in principle. To answer this, what Paul has to say about the family, and the father/husband’s responsibility, should be examined.

The Example of the Priests

High priests sacrificed their families emotional needs while on duty while still providing for their physical needs. The priest’s portion in certain sacrifices would be sent to his household and was designed by God to meet their physical needs. However, while on duty he was expected to keep himself ceremonially clean. This meant that he stayed in the temple complex while his family stayed home (Lev 21:10-12). He was what many call today “an absent dad”! Further, he could not meet certain other needs while on duty with the “anointing” on him. For example, sex with his wife would make him temporarily unclean. He could not bury family members.[34] He was to do nothing that might even temporarily render him ceremonially unclean.

This might explain the problem of Eli’s sons. As High Priest, he would have spent more time at the tabernacle than at home. One might argue that their wickedness might be traced back to neglect that led to an inability to influence them, evidenced by his failure to get them to stop sinning (1 Sam 2:22-36). The text says their unrepentant attitude came from God as part of His judgment. Nonetheless, God held Eli accountable for his son’s conduct even as He does elders (and thus pastors) for the conduct of their children.[35]

Absolute or conditioned?

Is Jesus’ demands absolutes, or do relevant passages provide exceptions to what appears to be absolute commands? With respect to self-sacrifice, one might ask if Paul’s words in Philippians 2:4 may appear to allow some measure of placing personal needs ahead of the needs of others. Granted, no one can serve the way Jesus demands unless he or she considers the members of the body of Christ to be more important than oneself. However, Paul does not command that all personal interests be set aside. He does not say everyone must look out exclusively after the interests of others. Rather, one should be meeting both. So, since believers are permitted to pursue meeting personal needs, are there other passages that address this issue?

Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7

Paul addresses a problem with marriage as it relates to serving God. He warns the Corinthians of the consequence of choosing marriage over singleness. Married people have divided loyalties. Devotion to God is impacted by the needs of one’s spouse. He applies this primarily in the area of sexual needs (vv. 3-6), but extends it to other areas by implication. In this context Paul does not condemn the divided loyalty, but states it as a reality of marriage. This creates a tension within the person when the issue of suffering for Christ comes along. The reality that Paul addresses is that more than just the individual (husband or wife) is affected by the choices made. He is being very realistic when discussing the tension his readers will face. Paul’s solution is singleness that allows a singleness of devotion to God. The context of Paul’s words is “the present distress” (v. 26) the Corinthians faced in their day. They were living in the shadow of persecution. The instructions of Paul are given in that context.[36]

Does Paul’s instructions on marriage mitigate the absoluteness of Jesus’ demand? No. It acknowledges it. Paul’s solution is to avoid getting into a position where a choice has to be made. But, what about once the choice to marry has been made? Paul says it’s not sin (v. 28). It just adds another dimension to the question of serving Christ.

Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5:25-33

What about the husband’s role in marriage? This passage commands self-sacrificial love, like Christ’s for the church. How can a man love his wife in this way and sacrifice her for serving Christ? Put another way, how can a husband love his wife sacrificially and still serve and obey Christ unconditionally? What if God leads him into a situation that requires so much of his time and energy that he cannot meet his wife’s needs? Evangelicalism today says a godly husband puts family first. To neglect the family in order to serve God is wrong, even sin. Finally, God will not put him into such a position where he has to choose.

Jesus says the opposite of evangelicalism. A danger of misinterpreting or misusing this passage results if one does not recognize that Paul is giving generalized commands, broad principles, without dealing with extenuating circumstances. Ephesians is hermeneutically disconnected from Jesus’ statements in the Gospels. Nothing with the passage indicates that Paul is responding to, or connecting with, the issue of devotion to God as it relates to the family. Rather, the point being made by Paul is that love moves a husband to guide his wife toward spiritual maturity. Paul does not address food, clothing, shelter (physical issues). That is why he concludes with speaking of Christ and the church. In Jesus’ relationship to the church, does He meet our every physical or social need? No. This is not just an issue of persecution. Christians live in poverty, experience want. Yet, Jesus loved us sacrificially (sacrificing Himself) and still loves us intensely. His provision is for what matters, and material things do not matter. They are part of the temporal and passing world.

The commands of Ephesians apply to routine living, not sacrifice or persecution or special calling. A balancing passage for Ephesians is Colossians 3:1-4. There believers are commanded to set their minds on things above, namely their heavenly destination. This accords with Jesus’ words that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:31). One’s values and focus must be directed toward one’s eternal destiny not our temporal world. Everything should be measured by that, including a family’s needs. This command fits better with Jesus’ demands. In a sense it reveals the mindset needed to follow Jesus unconditionally. However, Paul is not saying that a loving husband does not provide for his family. He does. Even so, the statement that whoever does not is “worse than an unbeliever” is given in the context of caring for widows, not wives and children, though they can be included in the statement by principle. The issue is physical needs, not emotional. American culture has added the emotional element. A person can provide for the physical needs of his family, even his extended family, and “neglect” them in terms of time and availability. The “needs” in view in 1 Timothy 5:8 are physical needs, financial support. They are not emotional or self-actualization needs. No more should be read into the passage than God intended. That being said, in serving Christ, every husband should still meet the physical needs of family. It is an obligation. As a church in a culture that is self-focused and has defined happiness as a right, we need to be careful that we do not elevate “wants” to “needs” based on American values. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs should not be elevated to a biblical command for husbands and fathers.

Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1

Do the qualifications of elders and deacons soften Jesus’ demand? Both offices require men who are faithful to their wives (Tit 1:6; 1 Tim 3:2, 12) and “manage” (προΐστημι) their households well, including their children (1 Tim 3:4, 12) such that they cannot be accused of incorrigibility or insubordination (Tit 1:6).[37] Failure in this area disqualifies a man from serving.

One might argue that since neglecting the family to serve the church may lead to children acting out rebellion in order to get their father’s attention, Pastor’s must take care of their children’s emotional needs first. And, before someone says that elders were “older” and so would have grown children, it need not be true of deacons, then or now. In fact, διάκονος does not imply an age category in the same way that πρεσβυτέρος does. Again, if a man cannot meet both church and family obligations, he should not serve! However, biblical obligations should be distinguished from American cultural expectations.

Shepherds or Hirelings?

Peter’s command to overseers to “shepherd the flock of God” (ποιμάνατε τὸ ἐν ὑμῖν ποίμνιον τοῦ θεοῦ) alludes to the responsibilities of shepherds in the first century world (1 Pet 5:2-3). Shepherding was a twenty-four hour a day, seven days a week responsibility.[38] If he had a large enough flock and sufficient resources, he might hire an assistant shepherd. However, ultimately the care of the sheep still lay with him.[39] Unless the sheepfold was situated proximate to his house, or he had a hireling who could guard them at night, he would spend his time with the flock. Even on his child’s birthday, a shepherd could not leave the sheep unattended to go home for even an hour. The sheep’s needs trumped those of his wife and children. And, they understood.

When Jesus calls someone to be His under-shepherd, responsible for one of His flocks, He expects total devotion to the task. When one of Jesus’ sheep needs a shepherd’s care, whether in the hospital, grappling with the news of a death, comfort for a sick child, or some other legitimate need, Jesus expects His under-shepherd to meet those needs immediately. He is Jesus’ physical comforting presence in that moment of need. That church member has emotional and spiritual needs that Jesus wants met then, not after the game is over or when it is convenient for the pastor and his family. And, yes, that does mean leaving the family and going to the person who needs comfort and encouragement. The family will have to wait.

Meeting the needs of Christ’s flock does not mean indefinitely postponing meeting one’s family’s needs. To obey Christ’s commands to the husband and father, Jesus expects his under-shepherd to return home and care for his family as well. Compensation will need to be made. Explanations will need to be given. Love will still need to be communicated. The family will have to understand and accept their place in the hierarchy of devotion. They must accept that devotion to God means doing what matters most to Him in each moment. For them, devotion to Christ, putting Christ first, must necessarily mean giving up things so their husband or father may be fully devoted and fully faithful to his Lord.

The Unwilling Family

What does one do if the rest of the family is not willing to be “sacrificed” for Jesus? They have real needs. So, what is the answer? All service to Jesus requires sacrifice of some kind, whether it is time, energy, money, emotions, relationships, or family needs. God knows the price that will be paid before He calls someone to His service. Can one fall back on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 and expect Jesus to “understand”? When he or she stands before Jesus at His bema seat judgment, the excuse of “my kids needed me” or “my wife needed a break” will be rejected and burned away as the stubble it is (1 Cor 3:12-13).

The obedient Christian will serve in spite of his or her family’s objection. Following Jesus always trumps family, including any obligation one has to it. That being said, serving Jesus is not an “excuse” to neglect family or feed egos. The command to respect and sacrificially love wives and discipline children fairly should be included in the list of things done in service to Christ. That is a part of obedience to Him as Lord and Master. However, when one must sacrifice, it should be viewed as a necessary sacrifice, preferably temporary as well. That does not mean, following the sacrifice, effort should not be made to compensate. Birthday parties can be held a day late, or early for that matter. That trip to the beach can be postponed. Time with the family can still be had, just at a different time than originally planned. Meeting the family’s need should not be postponed indefinitely. However, serving Christ should never be postponed, even for family.


Serving Christ… It is Him and what He is doing. His rule, His program, His desires are all that matter. Our calling is to serve Him and that means Him and what He is doing. If I serve willingly, He will reward. If not, Paul tells us, He changes it to a stewardship (1 Cor 9:17). Jesus does not view the ministry He has given us as optional or something to be done at our convenience. In that light we must remember that He is first over our families, our ambitions, our hobbies, our lives. If He calls us, He calls us to service and that service always involves sacrifice. Every call of Jesus costs us, whether it be time, energy, money, emotions, friends, family, jobs, or ambitions. If we are not willing to pay the price, He has no use for us. Let’s not claim to be His disciples. Pastors, if you are not willing to sacrifice, get out of the ministry. You’re not fit to follow Him.

[1] In this case “pastors” includes all full-time ministerial staff in a church.

[2] Marshall Shelley, The Healthy Hectic Home: Raising a Family in the Midst of Ministry, vol. 16, The Leadership Library (Carol Stream, IL; Dallas, TX: Christianity Today; Word Pub., 1988), 67. He observes, “Currently, the most sacrosanct reason for refusing church responsibilities is that ‘it would take away time that I need to give to my family.’ Say that, and who can argue? End of conversation. The danger is that we can become selfishly myopic, turning our hearts toward home but our backs to the needs of the world.”

[3] Even Christian politicians have jumped on this “band wagon.” For example, Mark Hatfield (Leaders: Learning Leadership from Some of Christianity’s Best, vol. 12, The Leadership Library, Harold Lawrence Myra, ed., (Carol Stream, IL; Waco, TX: Christianity Today; Word Books, 1987), 53), the former governor of Oregon says, “Our first priority is to God. The Bible teaches us to “love the Lord thy God with all thy strength, mind, and heart.” … Our second priority is to our family, because they are the gift of God to us; they are the joint effort of God’s creating authority working through us. … Our third priority is our profession, and if we put our job any place higher than third place, we have our priorities askew.”

[4] James Dobson, “Keys to a Family-Friendly Church,” in Building Your Church through Counsel and Care: 30 Strategies to Transform Your Ministry, vol. 3, Library of Leadership Development (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1997), 130. He writes: “I put my family first, and the Lord did the rest. What I thought was the end turned out to be the beginning. Even our Focus on the Family radio ministry grew out of that decision, and it now reaches more people than I could have spoken to in a lifetime of travel. But most importantly, I now have the memories of my children as they walked through the teen years, which would have been lost to me otherwise.

The problem of balancing career, church, and family is a constant struggle. It is rarely possible to realign priorities once and for all. An imbalance can occur in a matter of days. The moment I relax and congratulate myself for having practiced what I preach, I tend to say yes a few times when I should have said no—and suddenly I’m overworked again.

Nevertheless, I am determined to fight the dragon of overcommitment [sic] tooth and nail.”

[5] An example of this approach is Earnest White, “The Crisis in Christian Leadership,” Review and Expositor 83, no. 4 (1986): 580.

[6] Barnabas Piper, The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2014). Chapter 6: “Pastor and Child.” John A. Huffman Jr. agrees (The Family You Want: How to Build an Authentic, Loving Home (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2001), 57) and ranks areas of commitment as Jesus first, then your mate, your children, and finally your ministry or job (“work”).

[7] Francis Chan and Lisa Chan, You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity (San Francisco, CA: Claire Love Publishing, 2014).

[8] Parallel passages are Matt 19:3-15; Mark 10:1-16; and Luke18:15-17. Jesus’ instructions about forgiveness of one’s “brother” was in response to Peter’s question. In this case “brother” might mean any Israelite rather than a family member. Still, as applied in the home, Jesus calls for a commitment to forgive but says nothing about other aspects of family relationships. Paul says far more.

[9] D. A. Carson et al., eds., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 917-18. William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, vol. 9, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 475. Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett Falconer Harrison, eds., The Wycliffe Bible Commentary: New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), Mt 10:34.

[10] Roger L. Hahn, Matthew: A Commentary for Bible Students (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2007), 143; Hendriksen and Kistemaker, Matthew, 476.

[11] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Mt 10:37. John Nolland, “Preface,” in The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005), 441.

[12] Louis A. Barbieri, Jr., “Matthew,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 43; Iain D. Campbell, Opening up Matthew, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2008), 67.; Richard B. Gardner, Matthew, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991), 178. Donald A. Hagner (Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 293) states this truth well. “‘Finding one’s life’ (εὑρὼν τὴν ψυχήν) in v 39a refers obviously to the affirmation of life on one’s own terms within one’s self-centered framework apart from allegiance and discipleship to Jesus. ‘Find’ here means ‘to obtain’ or ‘find for oneself’ (BAGD, 325). This person will in the end lose his or her life, i.e., will not inherit the life of the future kingdom. On the contrary, the one who loses his or her life ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ, ‘for my sake,’ i.e., in the self-denial entailed in the taking up of one’s cross, which might mean even martyrdom (vv 21, 28; cf. Rev. 12:11), is ultimately the one who will ‘find’ it, i.e., in a degree of fulfillment in the present age but preeminently in the age to come (cf. John 12:25; for a Jewish parallel, see ʾAbot R. Nat. II[2], 36a). For the sake of Jesus, and thus the gospel, the disciple is called to follow after Jesus in unqualified obedience to the will of God, even to the point of death itself, which becomes for the disciple the entry into life. ψυχή can mean either ‘soul’ (cf. 10:28) or ‘life’ in its more inclusive sense (e.g., 6:25). Since literal martyrdom is not required to “find life” (though it may be the lot of some), losing life and finding life are here taken in the extended sense of meaningful existence, fulfillment, purpose, or identity. There is no real life in this sense apart from relationship to Jesus.”

[13] Nolland, Matthew, 441. (italics his)

[14] Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, vol. 1, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 149. Because of the circumstances of Jesus’ declarations, He cannot be viewed as speaking rhetorically with absolutes that were not intended by Him to be absolutes. He was not using these absolute demands merely to communicate the seriousness of following Him and not intending to be taken literally. When examining the details of the passage we do not find any literary or rhetorical indicators that He is intending to speak hyperbolically or in any other way than literally. These are responses to questions, not part of a teaching session (like the Upper Room) where He is instructing His followers and uses absolutes to spur their thinking. Rather, it is better to see Jesus plainly.

[15] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 181.

[16] Ethelbert W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (London; New York: Eyre & Spottiswoode; E. & J. B. Young & Co., 1898), 426. This would be the same contrast as God’s choice of Jacob over Esau when He said “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” (Mal 1:2-3), which Paul applied to God’s choice in election (Rom 9:10-12).

[17] Leon Morris (The Gospel according to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 203) notes, “If the present tense is to be pressed, it means ‘keep following me,’ that is, do not let even family obligations stand in the way.”

[18] Carson, France, et al., eds., New Bible Commentary, 915; Hahn, Matthew, 120; John P. Lange and Philip Schaff, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 160; Hendriksen and Kistemaker, Matthew, 408.

[19] Keener, Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Mt 8:21–22.

[20] Morris, Matthew, 202. We see the practice in such OT passages as Gen. 25:7-10 (Abraham by Isaac and Ishmael); 35:29 (Isaac by Jacob and Esau); 49:29-30 and 50:12-14 (Jacob by his sons); 1 Ki 13:31 (prophet of Samaria). Tobit 4:1-4 reads, “On that day Tobith bethought himself of the money which he had deposited with Gabaelus in Rages of Media; and he said in his heart, Behold, I have asked for death; why not call Tobias, my son, and inform him of this money before I die? And he called his son Tobias, and he came to him; and he said to him, My child, when I die, bury me respectably; and honor thy mother, and leave her not all the days of her life; and do what is pleasing in her eyes, and grieve not her spirit in any single thing” Tobit 6:14-15 reads: “I am my father’s only child, [I am afraid] lest I die and bring down the life of my father and my mother, with grief on my account, to their grave; and they have no other son to bury them.” (John P. Lange, Philip Schaff, and Edwin C. Bissell, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Apocrypha (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 149,151).

[21] Nolland, Matthew, 367.

[22] Keener, Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Mt 8:21–22.

[23] Carson, France, et al., eds., New Bible Commentary, 915.

[24] Keener, Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Mt 8:21–22.

[25] This would include not just the twelve apostles, but the others who were not chosen to be in the inner circle but still followed Jesus throughout His ministry. Our best examples of this group are Joseph (Barsabas) and Matthias who were identified as following Jesus from the time of His baptism till His resurrection (Acts 1:15-26). They would have made the same sacrifices as the apostles.

[26] Repeated in part in Mark 3:31-35.

[27] Mark tells us (3:21) that his family became convinced that Jesus was insane, at least at one point in His ministry.

[28] We are not told anywhere that he had children, though it is quite likely he had several.

[29] Another indication of his financial status is the presence of his mother-in-law in his home (Matt 8:14-15; Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38-39). Even if his wife were her oldest daughter, it would be normal for one of his mother-in-law’s sons to take her into his home and provide for her.

[30] The sense of ἀφίημι here is “to move away, with the implication of causing a separation; to leave, to depart from” (BDAG, 156).

[31] Barbieri, “Matthew,” 38; Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, vol. 3, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), Mt 8:18.

[32] In later years Peter and other apostles’ wives accompanied them when they traveled and were provided for through their ministry (1 Cor 9:4-10).

[33] Shelley, The Healthy Hectic Home, 70.

[34] Regular priests could (Lev 21:1-4).

[35] One might also point out that Samuel’s sons did not turn out any better, being accused of taking bribes after he had appointed them as judges (1 Sam 8:1-5).

[36] The military understands this principle. Single men die better than married men. They are more willing to risk their lives, even go on suicide missions, than married men. Married men have a wife and children waiting for them at home, a family that needs them to return alive.

[37] The sense of προΐστημι is both to “exercise a position of leadership” and “to show concern for, to care for” one’s family (BDAG, 870). NKJV translates it as “rule.”

[38] I.J. du Plessis, “The Social and Economic Life of the Jewish People in Palestine in the Time of the New Testament.,” in The New Testament Milieu, ed. A.B. du Toit, vol. 2, Guide to the New Testament (Halfway House: Orion Publishers, 1998), 1136.

[39] Ralph Gower and Fred Wight, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987).

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